Split Decision in Rimer Pond Road Rezoning

COLUMBIA (Nov. 12, 2015) – For the second time in six months, the Richland County Planning Commission voted last week on whether to recommend commercial zoning for a property on Rimer Pond Road. After hearing from many residents on the road who spoke in opposition to the rezoning, followed by a heated 45-minute debate by its own members, the sharply divided Commission returned a split (4-4) vote on Nov. 4 that translated into no recommendation at all being sent to County Council concerning the rezoning.

The focus of the vote is a 5.23-acre parcel, located at the intersection of Rimer Pond Road and Longtown Road West/Round Top Church Road, that is for sale for commercial use by Hugh Palmer for $1,830,500, or $350,000 per acre. But that sale is dependent on the property being rezoned from its current Residential Medium Density (RSMD) zoning to Rural Commercial (RC) zoning. Of significant concern to residents who oppose the rezoning is the fact that Palmer’s son, Patrick Palmer, is the longtime Chairman of the Richland County Planning Commission, which is charged with making a recommendation on the rezoning to County Council. By law, Patrick Palmer was required to recuse himself from all discussions and voting on the rezoning.

The residents protesting the Palmer family’s continued efforts to rezone the property against the wishes of the neighborhood have expressed concern about the influence that Patrick Palmer’s position on the Commission might wield. That fire was fanned last week when Hugh Palmer, the applicant, was called on by the vice chairman, David Tuttle, to present the closing argument for the rezoning after those protesting the rezoning had finished speaking. It is usual practice, according to one Commissioner, for applicants before the Commission for a rezoning issue to be called first to speak. No one other than the applicant spoke in favor of the rezoning.

Residents speaking against the rezoning rested their case primarily on the effect commercial zoning could have on already increasing traffic congestion in the area and the domino effect it could have on future zoning of other properties in the area.

“If this property is rezoned commercial,” said Rimer Pond Road resident Trey Hair, “the domino effect down the road will eventually destroy our rural area.”

Others spoke to the increasing traffic that they say now regularly grinds to a standstill, slowing both commuters and school buses for long distances on the two-lane roads.

“My son at Blythewood High School texted me at 9:05 a.m. this morning and said the bus was not yet at school,” LongCreek Plantation resident Angela Finch said. “The traffic in this area is complete gridlock much of the time. Please don’t let this happen to our community.”

“We are not talking about a high intensity of traffic (on Rimer Pond Road),” said Commissioner Christopher Anderson, who favored the commercial zoning request. “There might be heavy traffic around the schools twice a day.”

Referring to a 2014 Annual Average Daily Trips (AADT) traffic count by the S.C. Department of Transportation (DOT), Anderson said the road has a “level A” traffic count.

The County’s planning staff also recommended commercial rezoning based in part on that traffic count, which staff members said was conducted in 2014 at Station No. 705 on Rimer Pond Road and at Station No. 713 on Longtown Road East.

But when contacted by The Voice as to exactly when and where on the road those counts were conducted, Angela Hance, Assistant Chief of Road Data Services in the Traffic Engineering Department of DOT, replied in an email that there were no actual traffic count numbers, just an estimate.

“The count at Station No. 705 was conducted between May and October 2014, when Rimer Pond Road was closed for repairs and, therefore, we did not use the data collected,” Hance said.

Hance said DOT instead estimated an AADT of 3,500 trips for 2014, 200 less than the actual count of 3,700 in 2013. Hance said the 2014 count taken on Longtown Road East was an actual count, but she did not say when it was taken. The Voice followed up for that information but had not received it at press time.

In his appeal to the Planning Commissioners, Hugh Palmer said he wanted the parcel rezoned for commercial use because a cell tower and an access road on the property made it unsuitable for residential use.

“This piece of property really has no residential value,” Hugh Palmer said. “No one will want eventually to live there from a residential perspective with these limitations.”

Rimer Pond Road resident Ken Queen said the Palmers came before Council in 2008 asking to have that same 5.23 acres and an adjoining 26 acres rezoned from RU to RSMD for the purpose of residential use.

“They were given the zoning they asked for,” Queen said. “They have now sold 26 acres of the property for residential development. They asked for RSMD zoning on this property and now they need to live with it.”

Commissioner Heather Cairns agreed that while the cell tower may impact the parcel’s usefulness, “that doesn’t mean the whole area should have commercial zoning put upon it because of that limitation.”

Both Cairns and Commissioner Beverly Frierson pointed out that the County’s zoning district summary describing the purpose of Rural Commercial zoning is flawed and not applicable to the Rimer Pond Road/LongCreek Plantation area.

That summary states that RC zoning is designed for areas within Richland County where residents of the more isolated agricultural and rural residential districts and residents located beyond the limits of service of the municipalities can receive convenience merchandising and services.

“Even in this description,” Cairns said, “it refers to isolated areas and this is not an isolated area.”

“This is not an area where another convenience is needed,” Frierson said. “This area is not beyond the limits of services of a municipality. This is not an area where we need to put more traffic, more congestion or a strip mall-type development.”

Anderson said he couldn’t understand why the Commission was having a difficult time approving commercial rezoning.

“It fits like a glove to the Comp Plan (the County’s 2014 Comprehensive Land Use Plan),” Anderson said, noting the Comp Plan recommends that commercial zoning in rural areas should be limited to intersections. “Here we have a traffic light and an intersection. I’m having a hard time wrapping my head around a denial on this.”

“I have a hard time saying that because two roads intersect and there’s a traffic light, that we should look at this as a place to stick commercial,” Cairns said. “Are we to expect every intersection should become commercial? It seems wrong to go into a totally residential area and establish commercial development.”

While Anderson continued to argue that the Comp Plan designated that the Rimer Pond Road intersection is exactly where commercial zoning should be established, LongCreek Plantation resident Jerry Rega reminded the Commission that the Comp Plan had actually designated ‘activity centers’ at certain intersections in the County specifically for commercial land use.

“This area is not in one of those designated ‘activity centers,’” Rega said. “Within five minutes of this area, there are three strip malls with a 50 percent vacancy,” he added. “So we’re talking about another strip mall in an area with an already low occupancy rate?”

“We’ve been coming down here for 25 years, consistently telling you we want our area to remain rural,” said Michael Watts who lives off of Rimer Pond Road. “We’re here again asking you to look out for us. This is a beautiful rural area, and we have all the conveniences we need within five minutes.”

David Poole, a LongCreek Plantation resident, said the Palmers would be the only ones to benefit from the property being rezoned commercial. He said it would not benefit the residents who live around it.

Although the zoning level that the Palmers are requesting allows such intense uses as service stations and grocery stores, Patrick Palmer told residents last spring that he envisioned such businesses as a Papa John’s, a dry cleaners and a dance studio as end users. But in October, he told three residents he met with about the rezoning that he did not know what businesses would go in there, that he had not had any offers.

After failing to garner enough support from the Planning Commission and Council last summer for their bid to establish the first commercial zoning on Rimer Pond Road, the Palmers withdrew their application in September just hours before it was to be voted on by Council. Had Council voted against the application, it could not, by statute, have come back before them for another year.

Next stop for the rezoning application and those opposing it is a public hearing to be held by Council at 7 p.m., Tuesday, Nov. 24, at the Council Chambers at Hampton and Harding streets in Columbia. It will be the first of three votes Council will take on the issue and the only one of the three meetings where the public is allowed to speak.

Those who want to speak for or against the rezoning must arrive a few minutes early to place their names on the sign-in sheet. An agenda and information packet about the rezoning can be obtained by emailing Suzie Haynes at [email protected] or call her at 803-576-2176.